Condenser Microphone vs Dynamic

Whatever it is that you’re recording, you’ll always want to look into the different types of microphones you can use to get the best possible audio quality in any given situation. There are many various factors you’ll need to take into consideration. So in this brief guide, we’ll be exploring one of the most crucial distinctions in professional audio production – the all-pervading discussion of the condenser microphone vs dynamic microphone. Let’s see what all the fuss is about.

What is a Condenser Microphone?

These microphones were first invented back in the mid-1910s by Western Electric. They’re also referred to as the “capacitor” or “electrostatic” microphone. With these mics, a lightweight diaphragm is attached in close proximity to a fixed backplate, and together, they act as the plates of a capacitor. As we’ll learn in a bit, as the diaphragm moves in relation to the backplate, it generates an electric charge.

There are two common types of condenser microphones – electret mics and DC-biased mics. DC-biased condenser mics have backplates with a fixed voltage and require and external power supply to polarize the capsule. Electret mics use a permanently charged backplate.

Unlike dynamic mics, condensers are usually more sensitive to moisture and rough handling, which makes them less suitable for live performances and extensive touring.

How It Works

Air pressure produced by the source (or multiple sources) causes the diaphragm to move and change the distance between the diaphragm and the backplate. These movements create an electrical output based on sound pressure oscillations, and the signal is sent through the microphone to the mic preamp. Both DC-biased and electret condensers are based on this principle and rely on the movement caused by the sound waves.

Voltage

Polar Pattern

Condenser microphones can come with a few different polar patterns. In fact, most of them today have two diaphragms which can be connected in different ways to ultimately provide a few options for mic pickup patterns in the same mic. These variable pattern condenser mics can provide both unidirectional and omnidirectional polar patterns in one device through switching features. For recording individual instruments or drum components, you might want to use a unidirectional pattern. If you need to capture room acoustics, you’ll find a use for the omnidirectional polar pattern. It all comes down to specific preferences and what you really need from a recording.

Frequency Response

Manufacturers usually make data available on how their microphones will color the audible frequency range between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. There are some subtle differences that determine better uses for certain types of microphones, but this knowledge comes mostly with experienced usage over many years. Condenser mics all have subtle variations in frequency response, but are overall very good at picking up pretty much anything in the audible range.

microphone frequency response curves

Frequency response curves of the Shure SM58 and Oktava 319.

They work particularly well for capturing higher frequencies. This is especially useful for studio use or any kind of quiet or soft live performance, like gentle classical or folk music.

Uses & Applications

Condenser microphones are quite often implemented in studio settings. You’ll also see them being used on stage, and they can be used for miking up string sections or the cymbals of a drum set. The latter is frequently seen among live bands, as condenser mics can easily pick up higher frequencies in any setting. However, you’ll need to be careful when setting up condenser mics on stage, as they can often capture what they’re not intended to and create that unwanted high-pitched feedback.

Generally speaking, they’re like a magnifying glass for nuanced sounds and can sometimes pick up even the slightest, most subtle noises in the room. They are handy for recording more delicate vocals and acoustic instruments.

Just like for live applications, you can use a pair of condenser mics in the studio to record a crash, a ride, and other larger cymbals of a drum set. You’ll need to keep them at a safe distance from the source, but they do a stellar job at this.

Mojave Audio MA300 Multi Pattern Vacuum Tube Condenser Microphone

Mojave Audio MA300 multi-pattern tube condenser in a studio setting.

It’s not rare to see them used for recording or miking up solo performers who sing and play an instrument at the same time. One solid condenser mic can be more than enough to capture an instrument and vocals if they’re coming from the same person.

They can also be used for some very detailed and precise audio recordings, even finding their way into sound laboratories for scientific applications. In some cases, condensers can be paired with dynamic mics for miking up guitar amps. This is useful for high-gain distorted tones.

Phantom Power Requirements

It’s important to point out that, in all cases, condenser microphones require phantom power. This means that you’ll need either a preamp or a mixer with a 48-volt phantom power feature. If you’re connecting your condenser mic to an audio interface, it too will need to have a 48-volt phantom power source.

When it comes to condenser mics, you usually won’t have to worry about phantom power as most of the mixers and audio interfaces these days have the integrated 48-volt phantom power feature.

What is a Dynamic Microphone?

There are many differences when it comes to features and uses between condenser microphones vs dynamic microphones. Dynamic microphones are also referred to as moving-coil mics. Their output signal is usually significantly lower when compared to condensers, which makes them very useful for louder noises.

They’re usually more robust and resistant to moisture and rough handling, too. When you add lower prices to the equation, you get yourself the perfect mic for on-stage use and extensive touring. Additionally, they allow you to add more gain before feedback, which is pretty much impossible with condenser microphones.

How It Works

The main distinguishing feature of the dynamic microphone vs the condenser microphone is that they have a wire coil which amplifies the signal picked up by the diaphragm. To put it simply, they rely on electromagnetic induction just like ribbon microphones do to pick up audio information.

In a way, you could say that dynamic mics are like reversed speakers. There’s a small, movable coil stationed in the magnetic field of a permanent magnet inside the mic. This coil is attached to the diaphragm, just like the one you’d find in a condenser mic. However, in this case, when the diaphragm moves due to sound vibrations, the aforementioned coil moves in the magnetic field and creates a varying current. This is why they’re called moving-coil microphones.

  1. Sound waves
  2. Membrane/diaphragm
  3. Coil
  4. Permanent magnet
  5. Voltage out

What’s also important to note is that any one dynamic membrane won’t respond in the same way to all frequencies in the audible spectrum. This is why some dynamic mics have different membranes for different sets of frequencies in the tonal spectrum. However, there are some dynamic microphones with only one membrane. They are designed to pick up on a particular portion of the audio spectrum. These kinds of mics are useful for individual components of drum sets or for miking up electric instrument amplifiers.

Polar Pattern

Just like condenser microphones, dynamic mics can have a few different pickup patterns. The difference here is that dynamic mics are never variable or multi-pattern mics. They come with only one polar pattern per mic.

Some of the most common dynamic mics have unidirectional patterns such as the cardioid pattern. In some cases, you’ll find supercardioid patterns that also pick up a small portion of the sound behind the mic. Dynamic microphones are used for recording and capturing single, specific sources, so most of them have cardioid or cardioid variant patterns.

Frequency Response

As explained above, dynamic microphones may need to have several membranes to capture a wider range of frequencies across the audible spectrum. But in many cases, we have dynamic mics that are designed for a smaller portion of the frequency spectrum.

This is why you’ll find some very specialized dynamic mics for certain instruments. Quite often, some dynamic mics are focused on the middle part of the audible spectrum, which can help individual instruments cut through the mix more efficiently in larger bands.

Uses & Applications

Knowing that they are used for specific frequency ranges and that they have a lower output signal, dynamic microphones the perfect solution for recording loud instruments. This is especially the case for drum components that need close miking and loud guitar and bass tube amps. Dynamic mics excel at pretty much anything that requires the microphone to be very close to a loud source. This also means that they’re useful for recording loud vocals commonly found in heavy metal subgenres.

Due to their ruggedness, dynamic mics come in handy for stage use. Not only are they more suitable for rough handling, but they are also somewhat resistant to moisture. You’ll see them used for both vocals and many of the electric and acoustic instruments on stage.

Microphone

Shure SM58 in a live stage setting.

They can be used for individual brass instruments, too. Horns, trumpets, clarinets, and even flutes can produce extremely loud sounds. Some trumpets have exceeded 155 dB SPL in laboratory settings, which produces more sound pressure than a jet engine. Modern condenser mics are capable of handling pretty high sound pressure levels, but dynamics mics are usually the better choice.

Due to their properties, dynamic vocal microphones can provide more presence in recorded audio or the output in a PA system. You’ll often see them used by famous rock and roll musicians. One of the most frequently-used models is the Shure SM58. For electric and acoustic instruments, Shure’s SM57 comes in handy too, although it can also be implemented as a vocal mic as well.

Phantom Power Requirements

In contrast to condenser mics, dynamic mics don’t require phantom power. They are all pretty straightforward and don’t need any batteries and other power sources in order to work. A common myth is that if you connect a dynamic mic to phantom power source, it will damage the mic. But modern dynamic mics will not have this issue.

Condenser Microphone vs Dynamic Microphone Summary

Condenser Dynamic
Polar patterns Usually cardioid, can be omni, figure-8, supercardioid, hypercardioid Usually cardioid, can be figure-8, supercardioid, hypercardioid
Frequency response Varies, some are warm, some are bright, and some are neutral Varies, some are warm, some are bright, and some are neutral. Some have a filtered high-end for live vocals
Uses Record a wide variety of sounds. Cardioid condensers are popular for vocals. High-SPL sounds like snare and kick drums, brass sections, or guitar cabs. Also great as live vocal mics.
Principle of operation Variation in capacitance Electromagnetic induction
Phantom power required? Yes No
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